An Army chaplain’s documentary on his unit’s heroism and sacrifice in Afghanistan, and how its members and their families have dealt with those actions, began with a simple request.
Then-Capt. Justin Roberts wanted to follow the members of 1st Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment— “No Slack” — of the 101st Airborne Division outside the wire. Doing so would help him provide counsel to a unit suffering from a series of suicides and suicidal ideation.
“I couldn’t carry a weapon,” said Roberts, “so I asked if I could carry a camera.”
As he captured video of firefights, images of bloodied soldiers and other evidence of the trauma his unit faced, he began to compile what would become “No Greater Love,” a feature-length documentary that’s made the rounds on the festival circuit — Roberts was named Best Military Filmmaker at the 2016 GI Film Festival.
This month, it’s coming to theaters. Service members at Georgia’s Fort Benning, North Carolina’s Fort Bragg and about a dozen other locations can check out what Roberts says is only part of a broader movement to bring suicide awareness into the public eye.
“We need to have a national conversation about what’s going on inside the veteran population and the active-duty population,” said Roberts, who left service in 2015. “I know that there’s a great fear that the more we talk about that, we fear that civilians are going to think that veterans are just a bunch of people who are struggling and have issues. Well, the problem isn’t going to go away if you don’t talk about it, either. So you have to have a balanced conversation.”
Roberts’ film balances combat action from Kunar province with dozens of interviews featuring members of the unit and their families. While marketing materials tout the movie as the first theatrical documentary shot by an active-duty service member in combat, Roberts said the stories brought forward from “my guys, my friends” are what sets it apart from other films.
“Them being transparent, that takes a lot of courage,” he said. “And that’s not because I was a great interviewer. I suck as a journalist.”
While Roberts holds a master’s degree in media arts and communications, the movie-making wasn’t the point of his trips outside the wire. He was there to commune with his unit, and regardless of the movie’s success, he succeeded in his main mission — suicidal ideation dropped significantly after “No Slack” returned from combat, and it suffered no suicides.
“We broke away from the PowerPoint stuff, and we focused on the brotherhood and sisterhood,” Roberts said. “Getting guys to connect, just talking about the problems we were going through.”
Plans call for the screenings — a full list is available here — to offer local veteran service organizations a chance to interact directly with theatergoers, giving those who want to help a platform to do so. Roberts also said he hopes to make his suicide-prevention tactics available to other units, directing them away from check-the-box training and toward more fruitful discussion.
“What have we radically done different since this war began to lower the suicide rate?” he asked. “I can’t name anything. … I don’t know anybody who can. I mean, what, more PowerPoint? … PowerPoint will not save our lives. I can’t stress that enough. And we all know it, yet we keep on doing it.”
The film’s website includes a page where moviegoers can request a screening in their area. Roberts said plans for online distribution are in the works, but that he’s focused on the screenings at present because “the best way for the community to come together is to see it in the theater. You have active-duty, veterans, civilians sitting in the same room, able to connect.”